Interview: Cory Doctorow
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: CD2007
Date: 01/01/2007 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: I wanted to open by saying how much I enjoyed Overclocked. We're running a review alongside this piece. I get a real kick out of the classic SF titles series, but for some reason I like the homonym titles better than the identical ones. Maybe it's just the pun factor, but my favorite was "I Row-Boat". Will you be doing a Bradbury title?
Cory: I dunno -- probably some day. At the moment the stories I have on the drawing board are "True Names" (with Ben Rosenbaum), "The Man Who Sold the Moon", and "Jeffty is Five".
SFRevu: If your novel pace is a page a day, what's your short story pace? I get the feeling that you knock them out in a flurry of writing.
Cory: That's pretty much true. I write a lot of stories on writing retreats, especially during a very good one I've done for more than a decade that grew out of a group of grads from my Clarion year. We still get together every summer in Toronto -- our ranks swollen with other writers we admired and invited -- though I haven't made it in couple years. On one of these week-long trips, I can easily write a 10,000 or even 20,000-word story.
I wrote "After the Siege" almost entirely on airplanes. I knocked off the first 6-7,000 words on a flight from London to Singapore. "I, Row-Boat" was written on a regular, 500-word-a-day pace.
SFRevu: Which to you prefer doing, short stories or novels?
SFRevu: Except for you, who started workshopping at 16 and don't seem to have suffered too badly for it, aren't they really for people who are just writer wannabes?
Cory: Not at all. The great risk of workshopping is that you can end up substituting it for writing. It is a "writing-related program activity" -- to borrow a phrase from Dubya's WMD snark-hunt -- that can make you feel like you're writing even if you're not turning out any words.
A bad workshop can be just as destructive as a bad marriage. You can get cults of personality clustered around a single more-accomplished writer whose opinion overrides the other writers', you can get into revenge-critiquing, you can get homophily, where everyone pushes to a certain kind of story.
But if you avoid those pitfalls, workshops can make all the difference. The largest benefit you get from them is taking apart other peoples' stories and figuring out why they work and why they don't. Many writers (myself included) aren't fully conscious of the choices they make when they write, nor of why those choices do or don't pay off in the story. By applying critical skills to others' work, you can learn a metric crapload about improving your own.
Workshops are also vital sources of immediate, constructive feedback on your work. If you're sending stories to magazines or novels to publishers, you might wait months, even years, just to get a form rejection. Feedback is critical to learning and improving, and with a feedback cycle that's that loose and gappy and thin, it's very hard to improve.
Finally, workshopping provides camaraderie and a buoyant sense of companionship in an otherwise solitary life. Don't underestimate the power of working closely with other productive colleagues to kick-start your own productivity. Whether you're working out in the gym, running, assembling furniture, or writing, there's something deep and powerful about co-working.
SFRevu: OK, I'm convinced. What workshops are you teaching this year?
Cory: I'm teaching two: Clarion at the University of San Diego, a six-week program that I graduated from in 1992. This is the first year it's been located in San Diego, having just moved from MSU in East Lansing, MI. I taught in 1995 there (that's where I started work on "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"), a wonderful group of students who really inspired me.
I'm also teaching at Viable Paradise on Martha's Vineyard, MA, for the second year in a row. This is a super-intensive one-week workshop that was incredibly rewarding to teach last year, with a very high student-to-teacher ratio.
SFRevu: First you drop out of University, and now you've got a Fulbright Chair? How did that come about, What is "Public Diplomacy", and what are you teaching?
Cory: Public Diplomacy is basically about getting average people in countries around the world to talk to each other instead of fearing, hating and killing each other. The Public Diplomacy Center at USC is part of the Annenberg School of Communication and its director, Josh Fouts, takes a fantastic, far-looking view of the scope of Public Diplomacy. For example, he's very active in encouraging research into the way that multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft, create many opportunities for the world's young people to collaborate.
The Center was awarded a Canada-US Fulbright Chair which funds a Canadian scholar to visit for a year and teach, write and research. The Center invited me to take on the inaugural chair there, to research and write about international copyright activism, technology, and the net. I taught a grad seminar on this subject last semester called "Set Top cop: Hollywood's War on Your Living Room" and this semester I'm running an undergrad version of the course called "PWNED: Is Everyone on Campus a Cpyright Criminal?" I also ran a speaker-series of excellent, interdisciplinary thinkers on the subject, and podcasted the talks.
SFRevu: How do you find LA after living in London?
Cory: LA rocks. It gets a really bum rap, but it's fundamentally a collection of highly livable villages joined by a really functional and fast freeway system that works more than 90 percent of the time (though it's nightmarish the other 10 percent). LA's real-estate is cheap enough that people can really afford to experiment with the kind of businesses they start, so there's an incredible amount of diversity in the shops there, lots of manic entrepreneurship, fun designers, great restaurants and so on.
LA is more a Latin-American city than a US one; it's got a great vibe that I associate with cities like Havana; San Jose, Costa Rica and Santiago.
SFRevu: I get that making content available on the web raises the odds that a significant number of people will see it, and that in turn raises the odds that they might buy a printed copy...but that doesn't follow for music or video, does it? And how do those artists get any return on their efforts?
Cory: The economists' best research of the effect of P2P downloading on music and movies is that it has a marginally negative effect on a negligible portion of works in the top 40 (in other words, it puts a small tax on blockbusters), no effect on works in the middle of the pile; and a positive effect on works in the "long tail" produced for niches. As Tim O'Reilly says, "Piracy is progressive taxation." If you're a content millionaire like Justin Timberlake or Steven Spielberg, it bites you a little. If you're in the middle class, it's a wash -- generating as many sales as it costs. If you're in the great majority where you are more endangered by obscurity than piracy, it gives you a lift.
But even if it turns out that P2P is the death knell for $300 million movies and artists who earn a living from recording, so what? Radio was bad news for Vaudeville, too. Today's recording artists can earn a living because radio and records killed the careers of many live performers. If bands have to be more like Phish to survive, that's how it goes. Particular copyright business models aren't written into the Constitution; technology giveth and technology taketh away.
P2P is enabling more filmmakers, more musicians, and more writers and other creators to produce a wider variety of works that please a wider audience than ever before. That's the purpose of copyright -- to enable maximal expression and cultural participation, even if it costs us Police Academy *n-1* and payola-driven boy-bands.
Bits will never get harder to copy than they are at this moment. Tomorrow, hard drives will be cheaper, smaller and more capacious (a Chinese company sold 2GB solid-state flash-drive Christmas decorations this year -- a tree ornament that holds $2500 worth of music), networks will be faster and reach more places. If you're in an industry that demands that bits be scarce, you have to change or die. Radio made it impossible to exclude non-paying audiences from a performance. VCRs made it impossible to ensure that audiences watched commercials. They foreclosed on some of the existing businesses of the day and created new ones.
SFRevu: Should people aspire to make a living off their creative work?
Cory: Sure, if they're prepared to starve. Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and commercial creativity is fundamentally a form of entrepreneurship. Most pizzerias, barber-shops, web-design businesses, cafes and bookstores fail within a few years of opening their doors. Writing, music and other forms of creative endeavor have never been a reliable way of earning a living for the vast majority of their practitioners. There was never a moment when even a large minority of people who wrote for money made a living at it. Artists are fundamentally irrational economic actors in that they continue to produce work even when there's no demand for it. The pulps today pay $0.02-6/word; it's pretty much the word-rate Hugo Gernsback was paying in 1928. Yet people continue to write and submit, even though tuppence doesn't go nearly as far in 2007 as it did during the New Deal. Note that the compensation here has nothing to do with copyright. You could give writers a million years of copyright and the right to behead people who infringe their rights and it wouldn't change the word-rate at Asimov's.
The metric for a successful copyright system can't and has never been how much money an average artist makes. Copyright is supposed to safeguard creativity -- so you can tell it's working when there are more people being creative in more ways. Not when the cost of a movie goes from $200 million to $300 million.
SFRevu: Will ebooks ever get traction? Do you read electronically? How does that experience differ from reading on a full size display and print?
Cory: People already read "ebooks" -- that is to say, the majority of readers presently spend the majority of their reading time reading on screens. They don't read longer form works that way (by and large) and it's likely they never will. The computer screen has its own affordances that will drive new forms of creativity.
This isn't just about resolution or form-factor. The point of a computer is that it is multi-purpose, networked, and social. It does lots of things, and it wants your attention to wander around its infinite depths. Long linear narratives just don't work well in that medium.
I'll channel a little Eric Flint here. Reading novels has always been a minority pass-time, and the people who read novels fetishize the form factor the way that, say, a classic car hobbyist loves his tailfins. I recently wrote an op-ed for Forbes where I described these people as "pervy for paper" (I count myself among them). For us, the paper codex has value that has nothing to do with its technical merit.
That said, the electronic addition of a printed novel is magnificently complementary. Having a print book is great. Having the print and ebook together is stupendous. Now you can "loan" your book without worrying about getting it back. You can paste a quote from it into a sig-file. You can search it. You can read a little bit of it while in line at the bus. You can carry a huge library around on your phone. You can machine-translate it, or have it read aloud.
This is why ebooks sell the everlasting crap out of print-books. Getting an ebook makes you yearn for the pbook, and the ebook is social, demanding that you share it with friends, making it into an inherently evangelistic tool.
SFRevu: Assuming that people get comfortable with e-reading, can you suggest any models for how writers could get something for their effort?
Cory: See above -- use ebooks to sell pbooks. If pbooks go out of fashion, I'll need to figure out another way of getting a living, and that will be easier if I'm already really engaged with ebooks, so that I can see where the new opportunities arise.
SFRevu: I like the term "Future Present", which I gather is a comment on how futurist stories are really about now, or the view from now. Is that your's?
Cory: Yeah, I just came up with it; it's a grammar pun, which writers love.
SFRevu: I've heard varying numbers on how many planet Earth's it would take to provide everyone with an "American" standard of living, ranging from 10 to 20 or so. That's always seemed bogus to me since a) Americans suffer from over-abundance and b) information doesn't consume resources to be replicated. Mostly. What's your take?
Cory: Well, America has lots of weird consumption inefficiencies, especially away from the coastal cities where we're encouraged to own a lot more house, car and material goods than we need. I'd be more interested in how much it would take to provide every person in the world the kind of life they enjoy in one of the moderate-priced European "B" cities like Florence. Walkable places with incredible food, design, manufacturing, schools, racial diversity, etc. Places with great public transit and a high level of private vehicle ownership, as well as universal health-care, cheap or free universities, and refreshing absence of paranoid security theater aimed at eliminating abstract nouns like "terror."
The American lifestyle frankly sucks. The media is generally shit. The food stinks. We spend too much time in traffic and too much time taking care of a badly built McHouse that has the ergonomics of a coach seat on a discount airline. Add to that the lack of health care (just listened to a Stanford lecture about the American Couple that cited a study that determined that the single biggest predictor of long-term marital happiness is whether both partners have health care), the enormous wealth-gap between the rich and poor, blisteringly expensive tertiary education, an infant mortality rate that's straight out of Victorian England, and a national security apparat that shoves its fist up my asshole every time I get on an airplane, and I don't think that this country is much of a paragon of quality living.
America has lots going for it -- innovation, the Bill of Rights, a willingness to let its language mutate in exciting and interesting ways, but the standard of living is not America's signal virtue.
SFRevu: Do you care about space stuff at all? Is there any reason for humans to be involved or is it just a good place to put communication satellites?
Cory: I love the romance, but I agree with Bruce Sterling that it's just goofy to plan a Mars base when we can't figure out how to live in places that are a lot more hospitable like the Gobi Desert.
I think manned missions are a travesty of bread-and-circuses over science. The money we're talking about to send a human to Mars could produce 10,000 times more science if it were spent on more robotic probes. Look at how incredibly well those Mars probes are working!
SFRevu: Wildly popular writer, technoguru, board member many times over, intellectual property freedom fighter, college professor, and eclectic dresser...do you ever stop and wonder how it all happened? I'd love to get you to tell us how it did...but I'm sure that's somewhat longer than you've got. Has anyone considered doing your bio, Part 1?
Cory: Heh -- not really. I just followed my weird. I was blessed with excellent mentors (a fixture in SF), from Judy Merril to Jim Kelly, and I happened to come of age around the time that computers were turning into household objects. I had great parents who encouraged me, and a great hometown -- Toronto, a multicultural, cosmopolitan city with great transit that kids can explore on their own. I had great friends, and great co-workers and business partners. And great readers.
SFRevu: In one of the stories in Overclocked you suggested that AI would grow out of spambots. I've been thinking that for a while, and it's pretty scary. So, after the singularity, do you think they'll keep us around just to read their spam?
Cory: I think that the spam-wars and all the other parasite/symbiote wars on the net are amazing and fascinating parables for all complex systems. There's an Internet worm that includes a pirated copy of an anti-virus program that it uses to attack competing worms. So we have spam that's mutating from parasite to symbiote.
SFRevu: As a technopundit, I know you get asked "what's the next big thing?" all the time. But to a certain degree, I don't care. What I'd rather know is what you think "should" be the next big effort...regardless of how popular it might be. What should people be putting their shoulders to, to make this a better world? We know that DRM is your critical concern, but what else? Green Power? ZPG?
Cory: I don't really try to futurize. I think there's a lot happening in DIY technology, the radical customization of everything, as epitomized in Make: magazine and elsewhere, but beyond that... *shrug*.
SFRevu: How is "Set Top Cop" coming, and what's it about?
Cory: It's still in the note-taking stage. This is my non-fiction book about copyright, technology, and the future, and it aims to be the Silent Spring of the copyright wars -- a book that tells you why all this stuff matters and what the danger is if we don't intervene.
SFRevu: What's the next novel about?
Cory: I just finished drafts of two novels, neither of which have final titles yet. In order of publication, they are:
* "Little Brother" (not the final title): a young adult novel about hacker kids in San Francisco who declare war on the Department of Homeland Security. Like Encyclopedia Brown, every chapter is chocka with real-world information about DHS "security measures" and how any 17 year old (or terrorist) can defeat them, showing that we're not trading liberty for security, we're trading liberty for nothing.
* "Themepunks" (not the final title): The first third of this novel was syndicated on Salon last year. It's the story of the end of the economy -- when it becomes so cheap to make anything that it's impossible to spend enough to warrant an investment. It's about a network of entrepreneurs, financiers, theme park executives, gangsters, subculture freaks, and other characters who try to navigate the chaos of a world where living is so cheap, it's practically free.
From: Lynda Williams:
Always refreshing to take in Cory's frank and fearless comments calling life as he sees it.
From: C. Nielsen:
If the Florence region experienced an influx of immigration and population growth as where I live, SF Bay Area, what would the lifestyle be like then? I'm sure there would be loads of bad food, McHouses, bad traffic and everything else negative that Mr Doctorow mentioned. It's become too easy to criticize American lifestyles. Oh yes, we have many bad points. The restaurant food does suck (if you don't know where to look). My 30 year old McHouse did need a lot of work, but dammit, I love the floor plan. But I'm sure a page can be devoted to bad points of living anywhere else, including Florence.
My wife is an immigrant, and absolutely loves America. Yes she misses a lot of the care-free lifestyle she used to have, but she wouldn't trade it back. She had no opportunities in her home country, and she has the world now.
There's always a trade-off. There are simpler, easier lifestyles, theres cheaper health care, theres better food, and theres also no employment.
Just an alternate view. Thank you.